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5/16/2012Oklahoma Speed Trap Town Cheats Motorists, Refuses Refunds
Bernice, Oklahoma refuses to refund illegally collected traffic fines.
Bernice, Oklahoma trustees voted Monday not to refund illegally collected speeding ticket fines. The notorious Northeast speed trap town of just 500 residents was busted last month by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector for charging up to $545 for a single traffic ticket when it could only legally collect $50.
Since January, Bernice has had its own town police force. Prior to that, Bernice paid $5500 per month for contract deputies from the Delaware County Sheriff's Office to set up ticketing operations. As reported on the National Motorist Association's National Speed Trap Exchange, these take place most frequently on the stretch of Highway 85A that passes through the town where the speed limit suddenly drops from 55 MPH to 45.
Under Oklahoma law, tickets issued under a municipal ordinance cannot exceed $50 unless the jurisdiction follows a strict set of rules regarding the publication of a code of ordinances. The auditor found the town failed to follow these rules and has not properly published its ordinances since 1977. Bernice collected $300,253 from citations issued between January 2006 and July 2011, including $106,308 in excess of $50.
"It is arguable that the town of Bernice's failure to publish the 2007 amendments to its fine schedule would provide a potential defense to those charged the 2007 fine amounts," wrote David E. Jones, attorney for the town. "However, even assuming, arguendo, that the 2007 fine schedule did not follow the strict technical requirements for publication, the public clearly had constructive notice of the existence of the Bernice Penal Code and, at the very least, the fine schedule adopted in 2005."
The auditor responded that the town board's publication of a fine and fee schedule in the Grove Sun newspaper in 2011 was inadequate because the town still has not published the actual text of the ordinances themselves.
The auditor also raised questions about the way Bernice spent the money it collected. In 2000, the town paid Bill's Trucking $4100 for a 1992 Dodge W30 CB truck and $13,110 for a 1999 Ford F350 in 2007. Bernice Mayor Bill Raven owns Bill's Trucking. In what King labeled an "oversight," Bill's Trucking was never billed for the annual occupation tax the town charges in 2010 or 2011.
"Because of the obvious appearance of a conflict, it is never a preferred practice for even smalltown officials to do business with the municipality that they are serving," state auditor Gary A. Jones wrote. "Raven's business should have been billed for the occupational tax in 2010 and 2011 as all other businesses were. As the long-time mayor, it is reasonable to conclude that he should have known that he had not been billed and taken action to pay the fees."
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